It’s usually not the best criteria to judge a film on one of its most minuscule elements, but in the case of “The Spectacular Now,” it speaks volumes that one of its smallest roles is filled by Andre Royo, beloved by fans of “The Wire” for his portrayal of recovering addict Bubbles, and the kind of actor who brings a mix of savvy and gravitas to any part he’s asked to play. In James Ponsoldt’s third feature, Royo has just a couple of scenes as a math teacher who shows concern for Miles Teller’s Sutter Keely, a largely carefree student of his whose journey is the central storyline of the film, yet in only a few moments, we suspect that while Sutter will never remember whatever geometry tips Royo’s Mr. Aster passes onto him, he will linger on in his memory as one of the good guys who opened his eyes to the world around him. The character does this with less than two minutes of screen time, if that, but as with all of “The Spectacular Now,” which more than lives up to its title, everything matters.
Nearly every role in “The Spectacular Now” is occupied by someone both overqualified and unexpected, with every turn of phrase in the script both natural and deeply considered. (It took a second viewing to realize my favorite line in the film, a tossed-off lament from Sutter’s boss, played by Bob Odenkirk, at a clothing store that was heartbreaking once it fully sunk in.) It’s also all too appropriate for an adaptation of Tim Tharp’s novel, set during a time when every conversation and decision seem to carry the weight of the world with it. Although we first meet Sutter typing out his college essay sometime during his senior year of high school, it’s to the great credit of the filmmakers that you never know exactly when we’re dropped into his life or where his story might end. Prom comes and goes and graduation is treated as such a footnote that only its aftermath can be seen on the bleachers of the football field where it takes place, but what takes prominence is the burgeoning romance between Sutter and Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley) in which time largely doesn’t exist.
Of course, chronology does play a part in putting together Sutter and Aimee, an odd couple on paper with the former an outgoing people pleaser who thinks too little of his own well-being and the latter who prefers a smaller circle and spending time at home reading manga. She’s prompted outside by the sight of Sutter splayed across her front lawn after a blackout night of drinking, the result of a bad breakup, and though the two have roamed the same school hallways for years, the ride home requires them to spend some quality time together and for both to consider someone they only knew the broadest strokes about. Though Sutter’s friend may wonder why the two begin to gravitate toward each other, there’s no question once you see the two together with each of the leads at the best they’ve ever been.
Teller’s easy charm, so often reduced to stealing scenes in such films as “Footloose” and “21 and Over,” has never turned up as high as it is here while Woodley’s ethereal glow has never been warmer, both fully embodying their characters to the point that as good as screenwriters Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter’s words are, it’s easy to imagine pages of dialogue being discarded for simple glances and gestures. Likely just as key was Ponsoldt’s decision to set the film in his native Athens, Georgia where every home feels as though it’s been lived in and every person has a past. One of the great surprises of the film is to not necessarily know all the great actors Ponsoldt has lined up to include in Sutter and Aimee’s world, but those he assembled with casting directors Angela Demo and Barbara McCarthy are incapable of hitting a false note, particularly in the unmistakably authentic situations and places he puts them in.
Only the opening conceit of a college essay Sutter needs to write reminds that what you’re watching is a movie rather than a fleeting sense memory. Thankfully, it exists in more tangible form to be watched and rewatched, something that will no doubt happen for generations well after it leaves theaters.
“The Spectacular Now” opens in New York at the Lincoln Square 13 and the Sunshine and Los Angeles at the Landmark on August 2nd and will expand on August 9th. A full list of theaters and dates can be found here.